Last updated on June 21st, 2017 at 10:54 am
nextDrive Spectra is a portable 32-Bit DAC headphone amp based on the ESS Sabre 9018Q2C chip. It connects to Windows, Mac OS, Android, and iOS devices via USB. Read on to check out our in-depth nextDrive Spectra review and scroll all the way down the page to enter the giveaway for a chance to win one Spectra unit for free. The team at nextDrive has also launched a special 20% OFF deal for all BPB readers (discount code: bpb20) until Saturday, June 24th.
Making music “on the go” is a reality nowadays and the percentage of music producers who created at least one of their tracks while commuting or during a long layover is probably larger than ever before. Obviously, music making software has become more than good enough to provide the kind of firepower required for creating music on a variety of portable devices. Laptop and mobile phone manufacturers, however, tend to cut corners in the audio quality department, because the vast majority of users are more concerned about screen resolution and processing speeds than hi-fi audio reproduction. That’s where devices like nextDrive Spectra step in, boosting the audio performance of “everyday carry” electronics without sacrificing portability.
Spectra is a fairly portable device, weighing in at just 17 grams. It features a 3.5 mm (1/8″) gold-plated stereo mini jack on one side and a USB plug on the other, with a braided cable in between. The USB port can be either Type-A or Micro, depending on your choice when purchasing the device.
Design-wise, the thing that makes Spectra stand out compared to similar offerings on the market is its extension cord-like shape. It immediately becomes evident that Spectra is far more convenient to keep plugged into a laptop or a phone than some of the other portable DACs we’ve seen to date. Most other products of this type tend to occupy more space than a flash drive would, sometimes even blocking nearby USB ports. Needless to say, carrying around a laptop with a dongle sticking out of its side isn’t exactly the definition of portability. Kudos to designers at nextDrive for recognizing this issue and offering a simple solution. Spectra doesn’t occupy more space than a plain old USB cable would. It also fits firmly into the USB port and doesn’t feel loose when plugged in.
As for the looks, the unit is quite elegant with a polished aluminum enclosure that fits nicely with contemporary laptop and cellphone designs. The only indication that Spectra is plugged in and switched on is a tiny blue LED that only adds to the overall slickness of the device. The USB Type-A version of Spectra is available in two different color schemes (black and silver), whereas the Micro USB version only comes in black. One thing that nextDrive could hopefully do at some point, though, is to offer a USB-C version of Spectra. Although Spectra can indeed be connected to USB-C by using third-party adapters (as illustrated above), this only adds unnecessary bulk for users with latest generation cell phones. MacBook Pro 2017 owners are out of luck as well, but they’re probably cool with using dongles for everything by now.
Portability and looks are important, but the sound quality and software integration are the areas in which a DAC really needs to shine. Spectra passed our OS compatibility test with flying colors. It is literally a plug and play device which doesn’t require any software to be installed manually. Moments after being plugged into our Windows 10 laptop and Android 7.0 Nougat phone, Spectra was auto-configured and ready to work. Although I don’t mind tweaking an occasional control panel here and a device-specific EQ there, Spectra’s simplistic approach to setup was quite refreshing. The only adjustable parameter is the output volume level and that is done through the operating system’s native volume bar.
I also tested Spectra as an audio interface in Studio One and there were zero issues using the default Windows drivers. I was able to drop the buffer size to 512 samples (30ms latency), whereas dropping further to 256 samples resulted in lots of pops and clips. The performance would probably be further improved by using universal ASIO drivers like ASIO4ALL. Your mileage will also vary depending on the laptop hardware.
A word of caution – the volume level defaults to 100% after Spectra is installed and that is too loud for safe listening on almost headphone model. I learned this the hard way by literally jumping out of my chair and instinctively throwing the headphones off of my head after plugging Spectra in for the first time and pressing play in Foobar 2000. Not fun. I’d probably suggest that the default volume should be set to a more conventional level like 50%, but then again everyone else would suggest that I shouldn’t forget to check the volume level first instead of pwning my own ears like a total noob.
Sonic shock aside, my initial impressions with the audio quality were very positive. Spectra sounded noticeably cleaner and more focused, not to mention louder, than my laptop’s audio output. I’d say that the difference is similar to what you notice after removing a screen protector from a phone – it’s still the same screen, but slightly brighter and sharper looking. As for nextDrive Spectra, the difference is most distinguishable in the high frequencies which sound crisper and better defined, as you can hear in the quick comparison video posted below.
The mids and lows are also slightly cleaner and better defined. I’m under the impression that Spectra intentionally doesn’t color the sound in any way, apart from the overall boost in clarity. The frequency response is fairly balanced, which is great for us musicians who occasionally work on projects while away from the studio. Paired with decent reference headphones, Spectra does indeed make a solid piece of gear for mixing on the go. Users who are looking for a more hi-fi sound with sweetened mids and boosted bass should be prepared to do some EQ tweaking in the box.
As a headphone amp, Spectra works great. I tested it on a variety of headphones, from the cheapest ones I had laying around to my favorite mixing cans (the almighty Shure SRH440), and there was plenty of volume to work with in each case. I never pushed the volume bar above the 50-60% range. Also, the signal-to-noise ratio is exceptionally good.
With its slick design, stable performance, and budget pricing, nextDrive Spectra can reimagine the costs of high-end listening on the go. It provides convenience for producers and engineers who work away from the studio and offers an affordable option for those who are just starting out in music production. Regardless of your skill level in audio production, Spectra’s design and portability as a high-end DAC will ensure a better listening experience while using your mobile setup.
nextDrive Spectra successfully bridges the gap between consumer-grade audio interfaces built into portable devices and large tabletop DAC/headphone amps. The device is pocketable and convenient to use. The volume boost is impressive and the sound, although noticeably cleaner and better defined, remains transparent enough for professional use. Spectra is a good choice for music producers who want to upgrade their portable listening/mixing setup without adding bulk. Hopefully, nextDrive will offer a USB-C version of Spectra in the future to improve compatibility with the latest generation of portable devices.
More info: nextDrive Spectra ($149 USD, use coupon code bpb20 to get 20% off before June 24th)
nextDrive is kindly giving away one free Spectra unit to one lucky BPB reader! To enter the giveaway, simply submit your name and email address in the form below. You will be subscribed to BPB’s mailing list, with the option to unsubscribe at any point. You can further increase your chances of winning by completing the bonus entries (subscribing to our YouTube account, following us on Twitter, etc.).
The winner will be announced on Friday, June 23rd. We will also notify the winner via email (please double-check your email address for typos when entering the giveaway). Good luck everyone and thanks for reading BPB!nextDrive Spectra
nextDrive Spectra Review
With its clear sound and balanced frequency response, Spectra is a great choice for music producers who want to upgrade their portable listening/mixing setup without adding unnecessary bulk.